Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre is a fictional autobiography from the perspective of Jane Eyre, the eponymous protagonist who is simultaneously the ‘author’ and narrator of the story. Since its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre has been adapted into eight silent films, thirteen feature films, eleven radio plays, twelve television programs, ten theatre performances ranging from opera to musical to ballet. Some were exactly like the original story, but others had a more modern twist and one loosely-adapted film in the 1940s even featured zombies. Jane Eyre has also inspired many writers to put their own spin on the tale, such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which serves as a prequel from another character’s perspective. Several other writers have even written ‘sequels’ to Jane Eyre, as well as re-workings, retellings, spin-offs, prequels, and minor character elaborations. When looking at the long list of works the novel has inspired, one might be almost surprised that there has not yet been a first-person video game adaptation of Jane Eyre.
At this point, it is undeniable that Bronte’s novel must be incredibly compelling, in order to have sustained its popularity and status as a source of inspiration for so many years. Part of what makes Jane Eyre so compelling, besides the fantastic complexity of the narrative structure, is the relationship between Jane and Rochester.
Because of society’s constant romanticizing of abusive relationships for the good moments, Jane’s quest for love and autonomy while being tangled up in a somewhat abusive relationship with Rochester is aggravating and yet, compelling. On the surface, their relationship is a great, but kind of cookie-cutter romance. Older man meets younger girl, they have some problems, but they sort them out and still manage to be happily married by the end of the novel. If one looks closer, the façade cracks and reveals that the relationship is not so happy or healthy for Jane at all. Jane spends the novel searching for love and struggling to maintain her autonomy, and it seems like Rochester is giving her that love and allowing her to be who she wants to be. He is irritated but compliant when Jane refuses all of his fancy gifts after they are engaged. Jane refuses the dresses and the jewels because since they are not yet married to one another, she feels that accepting these gifts will make her the equivalent of a mistress, a bought woman. She does not know that whether she accepts the gifts or not, she is still a mistress because Rochester is already married to someone else.
The most famous line from Jane Eyre comes in the final chapter. Jane writes, “Reader, I married him” (517). This line in and of itself is mildly perplexing at a first glance, considering that the ‘I’ is a wealthy, young female and the ‘him’ is a grumpy, brooding, almost-40-year-old man who lost one of his hands and is also temporarily blind. On top of all that, at their originally-planned wedding, it is revealed that he is already married to someone else and that his wife, Bertha Mason, is locked up in the attic. Bertha also was the person who set his bed on fire and later tore up Jane’s wedding veil. It is incredibly frustrating to see how after spending a majority of the text on a quest to find love and self-love without bringing herself harm, Jane loves and marries someone who has lied to her, almost made her a mistress, and threatened her with sexual violence. At times, it reads like an abusive relationship.
A lot of the good moments in their relationship are not as truly good as they seem. For example, the proposal scene. Rochester plays with Jane’s feelings, goading her into anger so she will admit she loves him so he does not have to do so first, and then grabs her and forcibly kisses her. First of all, that kind of display of affection, especially out in public as they were, was incredibly inappropriate for the time period in which the Bronte was writing. Not only is it wildly inappropriate, but it shows that Rochester has a blatant disregard for her personal space and her right to her body. There is no consent there at all. He forces this kiss on her, much in the same way he refused to let go of her hands after she saved him from burning to death in his bed several chapters earlier. He appears to have little to no respect for her ownership of her body.
Rochester also intimidates Jane, and he does so in the extreme in Chapter 27. After Bertha’s existence is revealed and Jane is understandably upset about it, Rochester is pacing around the room like a madman, yelling, trying to make Jane understand the whole Bertha situation, and Jane is not having any of it. She is just sitting in her chair, listening to him rambling and watching growing more and more incensed with anger, and not giving Rochester the satisfaction of the reaction he wants her to have. Rochester “stooped and approached his lips to [her] ear” and said that if she will not see what he says is reason, then “[he will] try violence” (349). Footnotes in the novel elucidate that by violence, he means sexual violence. Rochester threatens Jane with rape. So, in his mind, threatening to sexually assault her will make her understand how much he loves her. Jane is understandably frightened, but again, she does not let him see her true feelings about this situation, and instead presents herself as being calm and telling him that she will hear what he has to say whether it is reasonable or not.
As a reader, it is so incredibly frustrating to see Jane—who has asserted her autonomy in denying Rochester’s proposal and refusing his fancy gifts—almost completely back down and let him try to explain himself. She folds like a cheap card table and stops being assertive after that threat. That threat alone ought to be enough to make Jane decide to leave. Rochester tries to marry her when he is already married and then when she gets upset about it, he threatens to rape her. Once again, he is showing his disregard for Jane’s autonomy, especially her ownership of her body, and he is actually threatening to act upon his disregard. He inserts himself into her personal space yet again, and it is so much worse this time because he threatens her instead of just being creepy and possessive.
Rochester is also extremely conniving and he is very adept at manipulating Jane. This is evident from their very first encounter. He pretends to know nothing of Thornfield, pretends that he has no idea who Mr. Rochester even is, just so that he can get Jane to speak freely. He wants to see what she has been told about him from the rest of the staff, as well as what she has thought about him and Thornfield on her own, so right off the bat he is lying to her face. Rochester does something similar later on in the text, in a scene where he disguises himself as a gypsy woman and performs a palm reading for Jane and the others at Thornfield. This time, to manipulate her into revealing her thoughts, he goes so far as to physically change his appearance and alter his voice so that she, at first, has no idea who this person reading her palm even is.
Bronte relies a lot on the pathetic fallacy to make certain scenes in Jane Eyre seem more romantic than they actually are. Returning to the proposal scene, after Jane and Rochester leave the garden, the tree they had been sitting under is struck by lightning and cracks in half. Many interpretations of this scene read that instance of the pathetic fallacy as showing how strong their love is for each other and how passionate the emotions of that scene were. However, it can also be interpreted as being a symbolic warning of the damaging qualities of this relationship into which Jane is entering. The lightning irreparably destroys the tree, almost as a sign from the universe that everything about their relationship is just a bad idea for Jane. The lightning strikes again when Jane is out on the moors, hearing Rochester calling her name, searching for one another. Again, this could be read as the pathetic fallacy showing how high their emotions are running at this point, as a sign of their passionate love, but the second lightning strike could be a reminder to stay away. At these two pivotal points in their relationship, the universe and nature violently destroys something.
Jane Eyre is such a compelling novel because of how the relationship between Jane and Rochester is romanticized. The reader overlooks the lying, the rape threat, and the obsessive and manipulative nature of Rochester because he and Jane keep coming back to each other (even if the universe is practically screaming at them not to). They want the relationship to work, so the readers want it to, too. Rochester is masterful at crafting his language to make Jane feel that he needs her—he tells her he owes her for saving his life, he tells her how much he loves her and he tells her he is going to prove it (by raping her?). Jane, sadly, falls for it because of how, in the ‘good’ moments, Rochester treats her with what she believes to be equality. But it is hard for her to really know how it feels to be treated as someone’s equal, because almost all her life, the people she is supposed to be able to trust and love just treat her like a non-person. It is easy to manipulate someone who has no idea what it is like to actually be treated well.
Jane Eyre has survived as long as it has and inspired as many people as it has because readers like to think that just because the novel ends in marriage, that it is a healthy relationship. Rochester likes Jane because the ease with which he can control her makes him feel powerful, and Jane likes Rochester because of how differently he packages and presents the abuse she has known all her life. Just because his words sound nicer and he is not throwing a book at her head, does not mean that he is a better person than John Reed or Mr. Brocklehurst or anyone else who hurt Jane in the past. But the readers fall for Rochester, too, because of those same reasons, and the readers ignore things like the lying, the rape threat, etc. because of how good Rochester seems in the ‘good’ moments. Readers, of any text, always have a tendency to romanticize emotional abuse—just because he does not beat her does not mean that it is not abuse—because oftentimes, the characters do not know they are being abused, so the reader does not recognize it either, especially in a first-person-narrator novel like Jane Eyre. This is why the novel has endured so many years and maintained its popularity, and why it is still considered to be so compelling. Jane does not know she is being abused, and as a result, the reader does not know it either. It is only by peering through the cracks of Rochester’s nice-guy façade that the reader can unravel the relationship and truly question why everyone likes this story so much.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Davies, Stevie. Penguin Books. 2006. Print.